Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 11 October 2010

Slow progress at latest climate talks

Huge rainfalls causing floods narrowly missed the climate change negotiators who met for another round of talks in Tianjin last week, with rather disappointing results.


Tianjin, a historical coastal town which is also China's industrial centre, just a half-hour rapid-train ride from Beijing, was the host of the latest session in the United Nations' climate talks last week.

The 3,000 participants were impressed by the warm hospitality, courteous volunteers and the giant convention centre with super facilities. The Chinese put 2,000 people on the job to handle the logistics, and the meetings went on without a hitch.

But as the Chinese chief negotiator, Su Wei, reminded everyone in the closing session on 9 October, it could have been very different.  The first site that China chose for the meeting was not Tianjin, but Hainan, the picturesque island province in the South.

Since 30 September, the island has been lashed with the heaviest rainfall since 1961, causing 1,200 villages to be submerged by floodwaters, with 1.6 million people affected and 210,000 evacuated.

“If our meeting had been held in Hainan, we would have had a deeper understanding of the effects of climate change,” remarked Su Wei.

Climate change may indeed have contributed to the Hainan rains and floods. A United Nations scientist has linked the recent huge rainfalls, causing big floods in Pakistan and landslides in China, to increased cloud formation arising from the rise in ocean temperature, which is a part of the global warming phenomenon.

Indeed, throughout the week's meeting, many developing countries' delegates referred to the many extreme weather events that have caused devastating damage in many countries this year, a clear sign that the climate crisis is not a science-fiction scenario but a reality that is now upon us and will get much worse.

Consider that today the world is 0.8 degrees celsius warmer on average than in pre-industrial times, and at current emissions rates the temperature will rise by 4 degrees or more, with devastating effects like the melting of ice caps and sea-level rise causing extensive flooding, and glacier melting causing water shortages in many countries. 

Even restricting warming to 2 degrees, which is the target the political leaders agreed to, would result in a lot of damage.   Some prominent scientists and many countries are asking for a goal of 1.5 degrees.

At the Tianjin talks last week, the results were disappointing.   The delegates now have a new negotiating text containing different options in language and positions, which they were supposed to focus on to narrow differences.

Drafting groups were formed to discuss the various main issues, but most of them were distracted by yet new texts or papers put forward by facilitators, only some of which were based on the existing  draft.

The buzz-word at the meeting was the need to attain “balance” among the issues being negotiated, but there were different views on what this means.  To the developing countries, the main stumbling block is the reluctance of many developed countries to commit themselves to deep cuts in emission reductions.          

Worse, it seems that many of the developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol (only the United States is not a member) do not want to continue being in it.

Under the KP, the developed countries agreed to cut their combined emissions by 5% by 2012 compared to 1990 levels, and then to negotiate new emission reduction rates in a second period starting 2013.

The KP group, meeting in Tianjin, is mandated to come up with an aggregate reduction rate for developed countries, based on what science says is needed to avoid global warming.   Developing countries are calling for a 40-50% cut (by 2020 compared to 1990) while the most quoted scientific estimate is 25-40%. 

Within this combined target, each developed country would then make a commitment which is adequate.  All these national commitments must add up to the aggregate. 

The problem is that many of the developed countries want to “jump ship” from the KP to a new agreement, which includes the US and the developing countries.  However this new protocol, following the US approach, is of the nature of a voluntary national pledge system, with no top-down science-based aggregate figure, and there is no certainty that the national pledges will be adequate or comparable with one another.    

According to the pledges already made, the developed countries altogether (including the US) will cut their emissions (1990-2020) by only 13-18 per cent.  If “loopholes” are included, that allow more emissions, the result may be only 4% reduction or even a 4% increase in emissions.  This is on track to global warming of 3 to 4 degrees, a disastrous situation.

The biggest battle in the negotiations is over the model of the developed countries' emission-reduction commitments – whether the KP model of legally binding aggregate figure with adequate national reductions, or the voluntary pledge system with no aggregate number and no system of ensuring adequate numbers for each country.

In Tianjin, only Norway clearly indicated it wanted to continue with the KP, with the European Union also giving a lukewarm nod, provided conditions are met.  Japan explicitly announced in Tianjin that it would not support a second commitment period in the KP.  Other countries including Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada have also signalled they want to do away with the KP. 

This has caused the developing countries to accuse them of intending to kill the KP, the only legally-binding climate-change agreement. With this development, the developing countries find it outrageous that the developed countries are insisting that they agree to an intrusive system of international “monitoring and verification” of their mitigation actions.

The good news coming from Tianjin is that some progress was made towards creating a new Climate Fund inside the UN climate convention.  Most delegates hope this will be agreed to at the Cancun climate conference in November.

But even here there is a cloud.  The United States indicated it would not allow a decision on the fund unless developing countries have agreed by then on a “robust” system for internationally monitoring their mitigation actions.

“It is disconcerting that the setting up of a fund is held hostage to other things,” said Desima Williams on behalf of small island states.  “It's unethical.”